What makes sports so great is that they are unscripted. When Nick Foles beats the Patriots in the Super Bowl, it’s an underdog story brought to life. When LeBron James returns to Cleveland and brings his hometown its first title in decades, it’s a redemption story. And when Jameis Winston ends his season with a record-setting pick-six, it isn’t too on the nose—it’s perfect.
DEION JONES. PICK-6 FOR THE WIN. #ATLvsTB pic.twitter.com/8pKNOa0jHs— NFL (@NFL) December 29, 2019
With the Buccaneers-Falcons game tied at 22 in overtime, Winston dropped back and delivered a pass right to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, who took the ball back to the house to end the season with a Falcons win. It was, incredibly, Winston’s seventh pick-six of the season, breaking a record previously held by Peyton Manning, and it was his 30th interception overall, making Winston the first player to throw 30 or more interceptions in a season since 1988.
If this were a movie, you would have rolled your eyes at how convenient it was for Atlanta to kick a game-tying field goal with time expiring in regulation to force overtime and allow Winston a chance to say adieu to 2019 with one last pick. You’d need to consciously work to suspend your disbelief as a John Williams score—or, in this case, maybe just the Benny Hill theme song—played in the background. The scriptwriters got a little too cute here, you’d think.
But this isn’t a movie. It’s real life. Winston is the most high-variance passer in the league—and it’s incredible. With that interception, Winston turned in the first 30-plus touchdown, 30-plus interception season in league history. When Vinny Testaverde had 35 picks some three decades ago, he threw just 13 touchdowns. The last player who had a touchdown-interception split that looked anything like Winston’s might be when Eli Manning finished with 31 scores and 25 picks in 2010. But there are few other parallels for Winston, especially in recent history. Baker Mayfield has the second-most interceptions this season, and he has just 21. Winston is truly one of one.
Winston also finishes his season with 5,109 passing yards, leading the league. His yards per attempt (8.2 coming into Sunday) will likely finish in the top five for the season. Winston is always looking for the big play—it’s a reckless instinct that sometimes works out, like on this touchdown to Breshad Perriman:
We've always said that Breshad Perriman is the best WR in the NFL.— The Ringer (@ringer) December 29, 2019
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/l4tAM5heo5
But all too often, these plays end in disaster. Winston’s resolve to continue chucking the football despite misstep after misstep is remarkable (who in the world has this sort of confidence in themselves?), but it brings up big questions for the Buccaneers. Are the former no. 1 overall pick’s frequent mistakes worth it? Is he one of the league’s worst quarterbacks because he hands out interceptions like they’re Costco samples, or do his big yardage and touchdown numbers boost him to at least mediocrity? Winston certainly is confident in himself:
Jameis Winston, asked if he's worried his turnovers will be why he isn't back with the Bucs: "That's the last thing on my mind. I'm focused on how I can get better. I know if I eliminate those, I'm going to be the best. Bar none. You'd better check your sheet."— Greg Auman (@gregauman) December 29, 2019
“Check your sheet” is an interesting thing to say when the sheet contains 30 interceptions on it. But Winston is onto something about his potential. That is perhaps the most important question for head coach Bruce Arians and his staff this offseason: Is there any way to limit Winston’s interceptions while maintaining his big plays, or does the good come only with the bad?
Barely a week ago, on December 21, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Buccaneers were planning on bringing back Winston, who is a free agent, in 2020. But that thinking may have changed, at least based on Arians’s barrage of quotes about his passer:
When asked how Jameis Winston’s pick-six impacts his evaluation, Bruce Arians said, “It doesn’t help.”— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) December 29, 2019
Arians, asked if Winston throwing a pick-six in overtime is worst possible way to end a season: “I can’t think of anything worse.”— Greg Auman (@gregauman) December 29, 2019
Bruce Arians says “there’s so much good and so much outright terrible” in terms of evaluating Jameis Winston and the future.— Scott Smith (@ScottSBucs) December 29, 2019
But this is a dilemma for the offseason. For now, we can appreciate Winston’s 2019 for what it was: a totally unique passing performance with an ending worthy of a Hollywood script.